A not-so-kosher approach to adoption

From left, Nicole Angeli, Richard Strelinger, Julie Layton and Jerry Russo perform in Hot City’s production of ‘Kosher Lutherans,’  which runs through Dec. 21 at the Kranzberg Arts Center.  

By Gerry Kowarsky, Special to the Jewish Light

A misplaced mezuzah is among the props in “Kosher Lutherans.” One of the characters is responsible for the mistake in the play by William Missouri Downs, which is this year’s holiday offering from HotCity Theatre. 

Hannah is one half of a childless Jewish couple in their late 30s living in Van Nuys, Calif. Her husband, Franklyn, notices the mezuzah on the wall and asks, “Doesn’t it go on the outside?” “I know,” Hannah answers, “but bubbe gave it to me and it’s so pretty I thought I would glue it to the inside.”

The mezuzah has to be inside the house for a second-act sight gag, but the mounting error immediately tells us not to expect too much Jewishness from Hannah and Franklyn. They are observant enough to celebrate holidays with their friends, but the Jewish trappings are in the play to set up the comedy, not to explore issues of religious identity.

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The phrase “Kosher Lutherans” crops up while Hannah and Franklyn are conducting a ruse. After years of trying unsuccessfully to have a child, the couple is on the verge of arranging an adoption with Alison, a pregnant college student from Iowa. Just as the contract is about to be signed, Hannah realizes that Alison has no idea the couple is Jewish. Hannah does not want to proceed without telling Alison the truth.

Franklyn is aghast at the thought of losing a chance to end the couple’s long wait to be parents. He talks Hannah into pretending to be Christians until the adoption agreement is final. Carrying out this scheme is complicated by the arrival of the couple’s best friends, Ben and Martha, who have come over to celebrate the first night of Hanukkah. 

The struggle to maintain the deception provides the most rousing moments in “Kosher Lutherans,” but the farce doesn’t kick in until the second act, when Alison makes her first appearance. The entire first act revolves around squabbles among the two married couples, often involving infertility and infidelity. 

It’s familiar stuff, as are the bits that depend on stereotypes. Fortunately, the HotCity cast adopts a broad style that makes the humor work. 

Richard Strelinger and Julie Layton portray Franklyn and Hannah, who are both are a bit loopy. Franklyn has decided to quit his job to write a novel. Hannah is amazingly tolerant of her husband’s leap into the unknown, even though the snatches we hear from his manuscript reveal no talent. Strelinger and Layton give these well-matched spouses a naive enthusiasm that makes them sympathetic in spite of their eccentricities.

Ben and Martha are a much more volatile couple than their friends. Jerry Russo and Nicole Angeli let plenty of sparks fly as the battling spouses without undermining the comic tone. Beth Wickenhauser’s portrayal of Alison gives her simplicity without making her a simpleton.

The production is enhanced by Maureen Berry’s lighting, Felia Davenport’s costumes, Meg Brinkley’s props, Michael B. Perkins’ sound, and David Blake’s scenic design. 

The set stretches diagonally between opposite corners of the black box theater in the Kranzberg Arts Center. Blake fills the large space by including architectural details from the exterior of a typical southern California house as well as the interior. Marty Stanberry’s direction exploits all the room for actors to roam in.